Are People Irrational in a Disaster?

News today of the terrible nightclub fire in Perm, Russia, in which at least 109 people died in a blaze caused by stage pyrotechnics setting fire to inflammable decorations. From the AP report:

Video recorded by a clubgoer and shown on Russian television showed partygoers dancing, before sparks from pyrotechnic fountains on stage ignited the club’s ceiling around midnight. Witness Svetlana Kuvshinova told The Associated Press that the blaze swiftly consumed twigs decorating the ceiling. Russian clubs and restaurants often cover ceilings with plastic insulation and a layer of willow twigs to create a rustic look…

The video showed people reluctantly heading toward the exit, some of them turning back to look at the burning ceiling. Within seconds they started rushing away in panic as flames begin to spread faster.

“There was only one exit, and people starting breaking down the doors to get out,” said a woman who identified herself only as Olga, smeared with soot and wearing a filthy fur coat. “They were breaking the door and panic set in. Everything was in smoke. I couldn’t see anything.”

The catastrophe is eerily similar (as the AP story notes) to the Station nightclub fire that took place in Rhode Island in 2001, and which I describe in Chapter 11 of my book. In both cases, revelers milled about as the flames spread, then moved en masse towards the front door, where their bodies jammed the exits so that no one could escape. Those who didn’t die of smoke inhalation were crushed to death by the pressure of those pushing from behind.

In both cases, many or all of the patrons of the club would have survived had they left the club in an orderly fashion. Instead, it seems, they panicked and died — a case of fear provoking irrational and ultimately self-destructive behavior. Or is it?Many experts who study the psychology of disasters refute the widespread idea that panic spreads like a contagion when a group is faced with a life-or-death crisis. Indeed, they point out that if anything people are often too slow to react to evident danger. When they do react, they tend to react in an orderly fashion.

In reporting Extreme Fear, I spoke with Ian Thomas, an Australian professor who studies fire engineering, and who himself survived the worst forest fire in Australian history. “There’s the impression that people in building fires panic,” he said, “but in practice what’s been found is that people actually don’t panic, they spend most of their time making rational decisions. But when they do act, they act with limited information. And looking at it afterward,  it can appear that they’re making irrational decisions,  giving the appearance of panic. But if you don’t have information about what’s going to happen in the future, then all you can do is make the best decision you can at the time. And that decision may turn out to be wrong.”

In the case of both the Station nightclub fire and the more recent one in Russia, the patron’s decision to move towards the exit was perfectly rational. The problem was that everyone else was making the same decision at the same time. Indeed, given the reality of a single exit, there’s nothing any individual person could have done to improve their chances.

For the victims of the Station fire, hindsight cast a light on a cruel irony. There was not one exit to the club, but two. As the clubgoers piled upon one another in a fruitless attempt to escape through the front door, a side door remained unobstructed. Few thought to use it, because when they had come into the club they hadn’t bothered to check for fire exits. Under the pressure of the sudden fire, they didn’t have the time or the clear-headedness to look for another way out.

The moral of the story? When you’re in a theater or a nightclub, take a second to notice where the exits are. The chances are small you’ll ever need to use the knowledge. But if you do, the payoff could be enormous.

4 thoughts on “Are People Irrational in a Disaster?”

  1. Hello Geoff,

    Wonderful article and thank you for the numerous and valuable points raised. I did however want to point out one thing in relation to the Station nighclub fire. Working in central London i am responsible for approving the design of licensed entertainment venues such as the Station nightclub and also sit on the drafting committee for the Technical standards for such premises which provided advice and guidance on fire safety design amongst other things. While i agree that people did ignore the exit adjacent the stage intitially this was only really viable for escape for the first 20-30 seconds as after this point it was effectively unusable. Also the principle should be that you can turn your back on any fire and still have adequate exits to escpape. Looking at the design of the station nightclub the main exit was the only other alternative that should have been considered certainly if we were using the standards we have in the UK. AS the exit via the kitchen should have been purely for staff and the exit in the back bar would only really be used by people in this area. Therefore if the entire capacity was centred in the main body of the club watching the stage entertainment the only alternative exit to the one adjacent to the stage would be the main way in and out as the back bar one is not separated from this by 45 degrees or more. Given this the capacity should have been based on 2 exits which givent heir widths would have probably only supported a capacity of circa 250 people. I think this is close to how many people actually got out of the building so clearly if this type of capacity had of been imposed the outcomne may have been different. I completely agree that human behaviour plays a huge part but am also committed to the notion that appropriate design and regulatory control of buildings (new and existing) is also key to ensuring fire safety. Maybe some joint working covering both aspects would be a hugely beneficial idea although i’d like to think some bright spark out there is already ahead of the game on this one.

    Regards, Alan Lynagh
    Senior Licensing Surveyor
    Westminster City Council,

  2. Thanks, Alan, that’s incredibly interesting information. I think that you’re absolutely right; since we can’t rely on individuals in an imminently perilous situation to sort out the various options available to them, we have to design spaces that make the correct behavior the one that they’ll most automatically engage in.

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